Opinion: ‘A Jew with a coin’ and the changes of Polish mentality

Photo: קובץ על יד/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Nowhere in the world –– and never in world history –– has a painting, picture, or figurine of a Jew been considered a good luck charm or symbol of financial success. Yet that is exactly how it has been treated for several decades in only one place on Earth, ironically, the country accused of vicious antisemitism: Poland.

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In terms of cultural anthropology, it is actually an immensely interesting phenomenon. That picture I mentioned usually illustrates the figure of a bearded man, dressed in traditional religious attire, most often an elderly respectable Jew, bending over some coins or holding a few in his hand. Sometimes it will be a smaller figurine of a “cartoonish” Jew holding a single penny –– the smallest Polish coin. Whether carved out of wood or made of plaster or modelling clay, it is always that tried and true style of friendly, cheerful caricatures.

And they have always been referred to as “a Jew with a coin” or “a lucky Jew.” It depends on the phrasing, the context, even the intention… But you get the point. It is positive, even hopeful.

On a broader spectrum, it is quite a unique characterisation: a Jew likened to a four-leaf clover, a horseshoe, a stork’s nest, or a hamsa. According to popular tradition, “a Jew with a coin” has become one of those items in Poland that when placed in an office, workshop, or home, essentially “guarantees” financial success.

The farmer’s markets and arts-and-crafts table displays across the country –– intended primarily for tourists looking for Polish souvenirs –– are always filled with even more Jewish “mementoes” for purchase, usually hand-crafted and made of wood. Some hold the Torah scrolls or lift the Menorah; others play musical instruments or carry buckets filled with water –– all of them brought to life as if depicting the original “Fiddler on the Roof” characters. They are compassionate and commemorative. Again, they are positive, even heart-warming, depictions.

Unfortunately, “a Jew with a coin” naturally stirs some criticism and controversy, but since the early 1990s that “Jew” has inspired fierce disputes. While he has still got his devoted admirers, he is attracting more and more radical enemies.

It all finally came to a head just a few weeks ago. Prompted exclusively by political correctness, the city of Kraków, southern Poland, recognised “a Jew with a coin” as neither a joke nor a caricature, but a dangerous return of “implicit” antisemitism. The argument was simple, yet absurd: any and every depiction of Jews with money is a reproduction of negative stereotypes concerning their wealth, greed, and cunning. But since the city has no right to prohibit the sale of pictures or figurines of Jews –– that would be ridiculous and illegal –– it announced municipal intentions to utilize any and every method “available and enforceable.” The national press declared, “Any new contracts with tenants, for example, especially those running stands in the Sukiennice, permits Kraków to prevent the sale of ‘a Jew with a coin’ figurines.”

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Coincidentally being there just a few days ago, I had to check for myself. I could not believe it. Those classic figurines had all but disappeared. And the only one I did find was in a back corner, depicting a Jew holding a bag that actually looked more like a purse. It had clearly been modified in a desperate attempt to just sell it and be done with it. Unfortunately, this was quite simply the effect of hysterically overzealous people –– both Jewish and Polish.

Now there is no denying that sometimes in Western Europe and the US, Jews have –– and continue to be –– targets of hatred, aggression, and physical attacks. Their shops, synagogues, and institutions are vandalised and set on fire. Jews continue to be murdered simply for being Jews. In the US, eleven Jews fell victim to a synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018, and a year later, one Jew was murdered, and three injured at a Chabad in Poway, California. That December, four more people were murdered in a kosher store in Jersey City. During the Hanukkah festival, Jews were attacked in the streets of New York City, and a cutthroat robbery in Monsey, New York injured five people, one of whom ultimately died.

The number of attacks on the Hasidic community on the East Coast continues to rise almost exponentially. And in the spring of 2020 –– amid radical political uprisings coupled with riots, arson, and antisemitism –– a classic pogrom took place in the Jewish quarter of Los Angeles. After George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman, mobs attacked Jewish shops and synagogues with almost reckless abandon.

Organised anti-Israel demonstrations have been flooding the streets of Western European cities for years. And in the US, congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar openly express their aggressive antisemitism almost daily. In Italy, 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor Senator Liliana Segre must be guarded 24/7 by police after receiving countless death threats. There is not a single Jewish school or synagogue in Germany –– urban or rural –– that does not require permanent police security. In Denmark and Sweden, the yearly Kristallnacht commemorations have become populist neo-Nazi antisemitic demonstrations, marches, and cemetery riots. In France, recent years have been defined by not only murderous attacks by Muslim immigrants against local Jews but entire neighbourhoods and city districts having become “No Jew” areas. Radical antisemitism –– disguised rhetorically as “anti-Zionism” –– is now flourishing in American left-wing universities. While Jews represent only 0.20 percent of Sweden’s population, they are the target of more than 4 percent of attacks motivated by ethnic or religious hatred.

Yet in clear and unequivocal contrast, it was just a few weeks ago that Old Krakow’s medieval “Sukiennice” (or Cloth Hall) still proudly sold and displayed countless “a Jew with a coin” figurines whose only purpose was to offer buyers warm greetings and good luck.

Everyone who knows the realities of life in Poland knows that Jews live like every other citizen. There is no difference. In fact, compared to the rest of Europe, Jews in Poland are safer. Much safer. And it has actually been that way for centuries. On the eve of the Holocaust, more Jews lived in Poland than in Germany, France, the UK, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Turkey, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and the Free City of Gdańsk combined.

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And it is simple, clear, and obvious why the Jewish population in Poland reached this size over the centuries. It is not because it was the richest country, but only because here –– in Poland –– Jews had the best living conditions. By far. Before WWII, in terms of the total Jewish population, Warsaw was the largest city in Europe and second-largest in the world after New York. So it was exclusively the Nazi German invasion of Poland in 1939 that allowed Germans their historic moment to exterminate three million Polish Jews.

Hundreds of years of relative peace in Poland with Poles was suddenly destroyed by six years of the Holocaust in German-occupied territory with Germans.

Yet despite that horror, Jewish religion and traditions continue in Poland without prohibition or obstacles. Cultural, scientific, and national organisations and institutions continue to nurture Jewish religious history. Numerous Jewish festivals are held frequently –– always of immense domestic interest –– and the impressive Polin Museum of the History of Jews was founded and established while the Jewish Theater and the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw have received multi-million subsidies for years from the Polish state. Since 1997, Jewish communities have routinely regained their pre-war property to reestablish historic Jewish “permanence” in Poland.

The only actual physical incident of “violence” in the last few years was Gdańsk in 2018 where a mentally ill man threw a single stone through a synagogue window after he’d attacked a Roman Catholic church a few months earlier. And let’s remember the sheer numbers: thousands of Israeli tourists visit Poland every year, while countless religious Jews continue to visit the graves of the great “tzadikim” (e.g. in Leżajsk, Lelów, and a few others). So there would be no shortage of anti-Jewish attacks. It is just that there are not really any people in Poland willing to carry out those attacks.

Since Poland does not appear on the “Wiesenthal List” (a research analysis chronicling antisemitic events each year), it has become necessary for overzealous radicals to exaggerate anything and everything they can accuse of being antisemitic and protest it in almost monstrous dimensions. It seems there are many people whose only purpose is to prove at all costs that antisemitism defines Poland. But all they have really got these days is decrying those figurines and pictures of “a Jew with a coin.” That’s the “venomous” antisemitism.

They accuse “a Jew with a coin” of depicting the stereotype of “Jewish greed.” But it is a clear logical fallacy –– and that is a nice way to put it. It is actually just absurdity, even lunacy. According to these ridiculous accusations (which sadly Old Kraków now completely endorses), antisemtic Poles hate Jews so much that they hang pictures of them in their houses for “good luck.” Is that the postmodern version of keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer? Because the truth –– because reality –– is quite different. “A Jew with a coin” is not hung in homes by antisemites. Never has been, never will be. These days, it is hung by “company presidents.” It is hung by local leaders, volunteers, and charitable philanthropists.

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As one of our social media participants noted in a particularly valuable, enlightened observation: “It has not been about that old stereotype of the ‘Jew bloodsucker’ for a long time, it is about a new view, a modern view, that incredible ‘Jew who defines success.’ These corporate leaders and titans do not want to be associated with ‘bloodsuckers,’ do they? They want to identify as those who can do business. And do it well.”

It is that simple, that obvious. And it is precisely why the lies have become so necessary and so extreme. Because while there is no doubt that for the marginal antisemitic diehards (in any country), the pictures and figures of “a Jew with a coin” probably confirm and compound negative stereotypes. Let’s never forget that essential “tenet” of antisemites: anything and everything confirms their phobia.

In other words, even a Jew defending the figurine would prove to an antisemite how effective and corrosive Jewish “control” really is.

In my opinion, these images and figurines represent appreciation and recognition, not insults or mockery. After half a century of communist totalitarianism, people in Poland are experiencing capitalism –– an actual, functional free-market economy. And money, which communist propaganda deemed a symbolic “enemy of the people” and “instrument of oppression,” has finally been redeemed. It has become exemplary; money emulates respect. On a practical level, it has become a measure and symbol of success. In today’s Poland, the way Poles think of money has changed radically and redemptively: money is no longer considered “dirty,” and earning money has become not only accepted and acceptable, but an element of ennoblement. It signifies hard work, dedication, even individualism.

And consequently, even that age-old Jewish stereotype has finally been transformed and begun to shift in the opposite direction. What were once accusations of “Jewish greed” are now an appreciation of financial successes achieved by Jews under the conditions of fair and effective capitalism. So those age-old pictures are not antisemitic; they now illustrate Jews as minters, bankers, traders, industrialists, administrators of noble estates –– all representations of some of the greatest achievements and merits in Poland’s rich history. (No pun intended.) And this is how our collective memory remembers them, rightfully. After decades of dehumanising communism, the ability to deal with money, financial success, and applicable knowledge of banking are all preeminent values and practical advantages for which no one –– especially Jews –– should be ashamed. Yes, I will repeat that. There is nothing to be ashamed of!

The Jews minted the first Polish coins –– with Hebrew inscriptions –– for Polish kings. They were exceptional financial advisers; they ran the business of magnates and nobility. They led international trade and mercantile industry for centuries. They were absolutely irreplaceable; a key element in an unprecedented feudal economy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth period from 1569 to 1795. That essential link between the noble manor and the village? They quite literally mastered it! The reality is that today what used to be the foundation for anti-Jewish stereotypes has utterly and irreversibly changed. The symbolism is now positive, and it is all due to the complete reevaluation of a Jew’s –– and therefore of our –– relation to money.

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Or look at it this way. If the negative “Jewish” stereotype or even the redefined “communist” definition were still dominant, such a detestable Jew (and all that hated money) would bring bad luck, not good luck! Or how about this? Name a single antisemitic entrepreneur in Nazi Germany who hung portraits of a Jew at home so that his business would succeed. (I will wait.) So in today’s figurines or pictures, the Jew is no longer that “bloodsucker” from “Der Stürmer.” He is a skilled professional and iconic success story.

And this is not just a historical study; it’s contemporary truth. A recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey ranks American Jews first among all religious groups in the United States (followed by Mormons) for economic independence, professionally preeminence, and stable, functional families. In other words, as an identifiable ethnic group in America, Jews have the most to be proud of. Today in Poland, they are praised and admired for exactly that.

And that is why the phenomenon of “a Jew with a coin” tells us something quite crucial, even enlightening. We’re witnessing a negative stereotype transformed into a positive one; a 180-degree rotation of symbolic meaning –– a literal “re-imagining” worth understanding and defending.

Instead of praising –– even celebrating –– this natural phenomenon, there are increasing global and domestic attempts to discredit “a Jew with a coin.” It is yet again reinterpreting a new approach with age-old prejudice. Or to put it even simpler: seeing a new vision through extremely thick glasses.

This unwillingness to accept or even admit the evidence of positive change? This seeming declaration of war on such a decent, spontaneous phenomenon in an authentic folk culture? It is profoundly unreasonable and immensely short-sighted! And furthermore, the systemic attack on “a Jew with a coin” proves that those who perceive antisemitism in these pictures and figurines are either oversensitive or intentionally exaggerating. They’re hysterical not because of a problem, but because of the lack of a problem.

For those who fear the return of brass tacks antisemitic stereotypes about “Jewish greed” –– as I myself do writing this commentary –– it is not those pictures of “a Jew with a coin” that worry me. It’s so many other practical instances. For example, Israeli politicians labelled a coding amendment to the administrative procedure adopted by the Polish parliament just a month ago as explicitly “antisemitic” and “immoral.” The amendment works to prevent the unrestricted “wild re-privatisation” controlled by the mafia and applied for years through gaps in the law, municipal corruptibility, and bureaucratic dismissal. Nobody in the Polish Sejm –– not a single deputy –– voted against this amendment because it was practically a reality. Yet Israeli politicians continue to call it antisemitic, even though the amendment provisions in no way prevent Jewish heirs from obtaining property compensations for Holocaust victims in Polish courts. The attitude these Israeli politicians spread is actual gasoline poured on the fires of long-held global anti-Jewish emotion. It is actual prejudice and slander. When seen through that prism and when compared to that example, “a Jew with a coin” does not prejudice, it is not slander. Far from it. It simply represents luck, happiness, and achievement like a four-leaf clover always has.

All in all, accusing “a Jew with a coin” of antisemitism is troublesome and dangerous precisely because it irreversibly trivialises and ultimately neutralises the true meaning and implication of antisemitism itself. Like we have learned, truth or lies can always become truisms, especially when you are trying to “define” a new problem because you cannot find one anymore. In this case, the truth is as simple as ever: when nonsense is labelled antisemitism, antisemitism becomes nonsense.